Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: Intrepid Americans: Bold Koreans

Title: Intrepid Americans: Bold Koreans--Early Korean Trade, Concessions, And Entrepreneurship
Author: Donald Southerton
Softcover: 169 pages
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc. (October 21, 2005)
ISBN-10: 0595370683
ISBN-13: 978-0595370689

International business consultant and author of A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm, Don Southerton aims to present a look into early examples of American entrepreneurship in Korea. However, the unique title's ambition might leave more questions than answers.

At only 169 pages in length, Intrepid Americans, Bold Koreans essentially revolves around the professional career of one such American businessman, Henry Collbran, as well as the ill-fated tale of American "pirate" ship, the General Sherman. Both are covered in moderate detail but venture little outside of their immediate impact on history.

Hollbran's story is fascinating and fortuitous. The road to the lucrative goldmining concessions that he obtained with his partner, Harry Bostwick, through the influence of diplomat Dr. Horace Allen were certainly worthy of note. His good fortune is carefully mapped out and delightful to follow. However, the narrative is short and doesn't delve into other businessmen of the time who certainly had remarkable stories to tell.

The infamous General Sherman narrative, while entertaining and well-constructed, includes debatable historical inaccuracies. Southerton claims that after the crew was killed in 1866, the ship was returned to America and eventually sunk outside Wilmington, North Carolina in 1874; unfortunately, this is not a widely accepted fate. The story of the ship's involvement in Korea is fascinating but its history is frustratingly convoluted. For one, the Sherman was once known as the USS Princess Royal. Another problem is that there were numerous ships with the same name built around the same time. For example, one was a mammoth 774 ton screw steamboat while the another was a 187 ton tinclad river gunboat.

Furthermore, the topic of early Korean businessmen is hardly covered at all. Despite being part of the book's title, Southerton barely mentions Korean businessmen; Yi Chae-yon (이채연) of Seoul Electric Company and Doosan Group founder Park Seung-jik (박승직) are only cursory mentioned. Unlike the Collbran and the General Sherman chapters, no such detail is found in the Korean chapter.

Thankfully, the included appendixes and endnotes are helpful, welcome resources for further research. Also, the numerous pictures and charts that Southerton include are appropriate and greatly enhance the narrative. However, some illustrations are clumsily laid out away from the surrounding text, forcing a lone photo to occupy an entire page. It's a small but obvious visual compliant.

The end result is merely a quick glance into the subject. I was disappointed in the book's short length, because what is there is mostly good stuff. Intriguing contents notwithstanding, what you get doesn't encompass the book's broad title. If you're interested in how Koreans interacted with early American entrepreneurs, this isn't what you're looking for. I had high hopes but was ultimately disappointed. The author has had a successful career in Korea and is capable of writing a much more thorough work than what has been published.

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Fortunately, there's lots of other examples of Southerton's work that can be found on his company's publication page including free ebooks such as this bilingual history of Chemulpo (Incheon). I wish Southerton would have put a more polished product out because I did like what he had to say, however brief it was. I'm still looking forward to checking out his historical fiction, though.


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